Using International Law to Address Injustice Around the World

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Amal Clooney and Philippa Webb sitting at a table with an oxford blue pop-up banner behind them.

A journalist reports on corruption in the government of her country. Security officials place surveillance devices in her bedroom, and broadcast footage captured from there to cause maximal shame and to silence her journalism. 

The leader of an opposition party is charged and convicted of a terrorism offence in a sham trial, and the resulting sentence given makes him ineligible to stand in elections his party was otherwise likely to win.  

Independent media organisations are either bought out by wealthy businesspeople loyal to government, or face ‘law fare’ (endless criminal and civil suits leading to risks of imprisonment and bankruptcy) if they hold out and seek to continue their independent reporting of the growing corruption perpetrated by those in power.  

All of these cases are, according to Amal Clooney and Professor Philippa Webb, indicative of growing pressures to the protection and enjoyment of fundamental human rights across the world, in particular the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression. And all of these cases have involved clients that Clooney has represented through her advocacy work.  

The fantastic opportunity I shared with the many law students, faculty members and the broader community recently to learn about Amal and Philippa’s work was a highlight of my Oxford law experience so far. What was particularly inspiring to come away with was the idea that International Law can and should be used to addresses these and the multitude of other human rights abuses that people face across the world.  

Often, International Law is marginalised by ‘mainstream’ lawyers and legal scholars, whose primary focus can fall to domestic legal systems with the clear delineation between different branches of government, and clarity as to how laws in such domestic systems are enforced. This approach to legal practice and scholarship places little weight in ethereal and distant international legal norms and standards, set in faraway places and rarely enforced domestically. 

But, according to both speakers, this is not how we should think about this field of law. International Law offers a benchmark of legal norms and standards against which lawyers, academics and civil society can measure corrupt and unjust actions from governments and show them clearly wanting, as with the cases summarised above.  

As both Professor Webb and Professor Clooney said repeatedly to the audience, ‘justice must be waged’, and it takes the concerted and effective advocacy on the part of all of us to challenge injustice and corruption in all of its forms. We heard that democracy can be ‘undone’ by one unjust case, and may take many years to rebuild once corruption becomes endemic in a system. But it can be rebuilt, from the ground up, through advocacy and by using international law. 

As a law student at Oxford, it is incumbent on me and my fellow students to use the knowledge and power that we gain from coming to a world leading environment like this to address these challenges. I walked out of the discussion, into the still warm spring air of Oxford, feeling inspired but also grounded in the knowledge that there is so much for all of us to do, to protect, promote and fulfil the promise that international human rights law offers humanity. 

by John Croker